The Magazine

The Referendum on Neoconservatism

From the November 1 / November 8, 2004 issue: It's already over, and the neocons won.

Nov 1, 2004, Vol. 10, No. 08 • By TOD LINDBERG
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RARELY HAVE THE HOLDERS of any set of political views and policy preferences been so thoroughly caricatured as the "neoconservatives" of the Bush years. To critics, this group of policymakers (preeminently, in the Defense Department and the Office of the Vice President), along with their allies on the outside (preeminently, in the pages of THE WEEKLY STANDARD), is responsible for a kind of hijacking of U.S. foreign policy in the wake of 9/11. Intoxicated by American power and blinded by a utopian vision, the neoconservatives (in the critics' telling) set the country on a disastrous and unnecessary attempt to remake the world in the image of the United States.

And for this, come November 2004, the neoconservatives must pay. The defeat of George W. Bush by his Democratic opponent--and for purposes of the critics' argument, any Democratic opponent would do--would mean a repudiation of this neoconservative view of the world. Many Bush critics saw in Iraq a comprehensive discrediting of neoconservative policy prescriptions, including the doctrine of preemptive or preventive war, belief in the efficacy of military power in general, faith in democratization, and unilateralism. It merely remained for voters to administer the coup de grâce at the polls and the neoconservatives would be discredited once and for all.

Neocon-bashing runs the gamut from right to left and from vaguely ill-informed well-meaners to the lunatic fringe. Let it be said that there is certainly an intellectually responsible critique of neoconservative policy positions to be made, and that some have offered measured criticisms from the left (broadly speaking, from a "neoliberal" internationalist position) and from the right (broadly speaking, from the "neorealist" perspective). But what's more striking is an overwhelming continuity of tone and in many cases substance between, say, the Lyndon LaRouche websites and the George Soros empire or the anonymous sources Seymour Hersh relies on in his New Yorker articles.

This continuity begins with a sense of "neoconservatism" as a doctrine offering comprehensive policy guidance to which all "neoconservatives" adhere. The next element is the imputation to neoconservatives of a kind of cabalism, according to which they surround their true doctrine with a bodyguard of lies designed to conceal it. From this point, it is but a short step to the view that the neoconservatives are monsters, both menacing and incorrigible. And, of course, the only thing to do with a monster is to destroy it or lock it up before it destroys you.

I won't waste the time of readers of this publication with a genealogy of this nonsense or a rebuttal. I will, however, offer fellow neoconservatives a suggestion that contains a criticism. One not uncommon neoconservative response to such demonization has been to suggest that neoconservatives are not really as influential as all that: Who, me? This won't do. In point of fact, neoconservatives have sought influence for their views and have obtained it.

Partly as a result, American security strategy has undergone two major changes since the Clinton years. The first was the Bush administration's initial adoption of a sort of unilateralism that led the administration to spurn, somewhat flamboyantly, the International Criminal Court, the Kyoto accords, and the ABM treaty, among other things. This species of American self-assertiveness, which Charles Krauthammer dubbed the "Bush Doctrine" in these pages months before 9/11, was in part the product of an emerging post-Cold War consciousness of the global power position and security responsibilities of the United States. Though a doctrine of unilateralism does not follow from this understanding--other approaches are possible, and even this administration's unilateralist impulses have diminished--the underlying insight was correct and transformational. And neoconservatives certainly had a hand in its emergence, beginning a decade before (but hardly ending) with the notorious leaked study of U.S. hegemony Paul Wolfowitz produced from his Pentagon office at the end of the first Bush administration.

The second turn came after 9/11. Culminating in the promulgation of the 2002 National Security Strategy of the United States, it built on previous insights--many, as noted, from neoconservatives--into the scale of U.S. power and responsibility and outlined measures the United States would take to preserve its position and counter threats of the sort suggested by the 9/11 attack. Once again, neoconservatives were at the forefront of the new thinking. They shouldn't shrink from this fact. They should be proud of it.

In the National Security Strategy and in a series of presidential speeches that historians will study for their insight long after George W. Bush and the rest of us are dead, this administration, with a little help from its friends, outlined a new strategic doctrine that is going to guide national security policy for the next 50 years, regardless of who wins the 2004 election.

More or less at a stroke, the United States made several things clear: (1) It intends to do what is necessary to remain the world's foremost military power by an order of magnitude sufficient to discourage all other states from attempting to compete militarily, thereby encouraging the peaceful resolution of disputes between states. (2) The United States will hold governments responsible for what takes place with their consent within their borders: The proposition that state support for terrorists with global reach may have regime-ending consequences will discourage states from allowing terrorists to operate. (3) The nexus of terrorism and weapons of mass destruction is so dangerous that in certain instances, the United States will act preemptively or preventively against states rather than allowing threats to gather; this, in turn, will discourage some (though, alas, not necessarily all) states from the pursuit of such weapons. (4) The best way to secure the peace is through freedom and democracy, because free, democratic states want to live in peace with each other; the United States should therefore be at the forefront of the promotion of freedom and democracy.

Now, there is no getting around the fact that Iraq illustrates the complexity and difficulty of this reorientation of U.S. strategic doctrine. Would that the task before us were easier. Iraq--so, too, Afghanistan--has offered innumerable lessons, some of them quite painful. And it would surely have been possible for the Democratic candidate for president in 2004 to set up the election as a referendum on the "neoconservatives"--I revert to quotation marks because I am once again speaking of the monsters of the febrile imagination of their critics.

All that would have been necessary was for the Democratic nominee to: (1) repudiate America's position of power in the world in favor of multipolarity, encouraging others to rise by reducing American military capacity and withdrawing from existing security commitments; (2) encourage Americans to come to terms with future acts of terrorism on our soil and against our interests abroad, rather than overreacting in such a way that we cause more of what we are trying to mitigate; (3) forswear all preemptive or preventive war options as violations of international law and instead warn of consequences that will follow an attack on us, assuming we can figure out who is responsible and what their address is; (4) advocate a return to the doctrine of noninterference in the internal affairs of other states, which would entail the abandonment of any effort to promote democracy in Iraq in favor of immediate withdrawal, as well as a posture of indifference toward genocide, ethnic cleansing, and the like.

And yet for some reason John Kerry has not chosen to run on such a platform. Rather, he says he wants America to be "respected" but before that, "strong." He proposes to increase the size of the military. He says he wants a more effective war against al Qaeda. He has insisted that he holds preventive military action in reserve. He insists that in using the term "global test," he was surely not suggesting that anyone abroad would have a veto over his actions as president in defense of U.S. security. He clearly favors working with our democratic allies not just because they are allies but because they are democratic and have a valuable contribution to make to our mutual deliberations. And he is open to support for humanitarian intervention in Darfur.

George W. Bush, meanwhile, can hardly be said to have run away from his National Security Strategy, or from his support for freedom and democracy, even in the face of an extreme test in Iraq. On the contrary, he has forcefully reaffirmed its central tenets, and points to Afghanistan's first election in its history as a success. At the same time, he does not seem to be in any great hurry to topple additional governments. Prudential considerations weigh heavily.

What we have here, I submit, is not a referendum on neoconservative strategic doctrine but a question of who will best implement that doctrine going forward. The case Kerry states is against neoconservative national security policy not in principle, but as executed.

No doubt appearances can be deceiving. If Kerry wins, there is every reason to expect within his administration a protracted clash between the neorealist elements and the neoliberals. But even the neorealists aren't as neo-real as they used to be. They may favor maintaining a norm of nonintervention (what kind of neorealist wouldn't?), but they will allow for sufficient exceptions on humanitarian and, yes, preventive grounds to satisfy the interventionist impulses of the neoliberals. Equally clearly, Kerry would be every bit as multilateralist at the beginning as the Bush administration was unilateralist--until, as seems likely, he runs up against the limits of his preferred ism, as Bush did before him.

My point is not that there are no foreign policy stakes in the outcome of this election. I don't much care for John Kerry's strategic instincts as revealed over his three-and-a-half decades in public life, and I don't relish living through the learning curve his administration will have to experience.

A second Bush administration will take office having had ample opportunity to learn from mistakes. But not only from mistakes. Also from its largely successful reorientation of security strategy to deal with a very serious new threat. George W. Bush may or may not win the election. If he does, it seems unlikely in the extreme that his critics, especially the most vociferous critics of the neoconservatives, will declare that they erred and that Bush's reelection constitutes vindication for the neoconservative position. They are too in love with their fear of monsters. But win or lose, the vindication of neoconservatism has already taken place, in that the Democratic candidate in 2004 has found it impossible to run for the Oval Office on a platform of its repudiation, but rather has embraced its central strategic insights.

Contributing editor Tod Lindberg is a fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and editor of Policy Review.